What Gordon Burn taught me: Write, write write, day and night

The week before the first winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize is announced, novelist Ben Myers remembers the pilgrimage he made to Burn's remote home in the Scottish borders.

Haunted is one word I would use to describe Gordon Burn’s writing. Forensic is another. Across a substantial body of work that spans journalism, criticism, biography and fiction – often simultaneously - characters real and imaged drift and merge through a landscape we recognise but don’t always like to acknowledge that we inhabit.

Because Burn’s writing is not concerned with anything as ethereal as the spirit world but rather something far more disturbing: contemporary Britain, and all of its – all of our - obsessions. Crime, celebrity, corruption, sport, the media, modern art – all provide inspiration for Burn’s unique approach to storytelling. And all of it feels haunted: haunted by man’s potential, for good and unbelievably bad, and all observed in forensic detail.

Though Burn died in 2009 I can only ever use the present tense to describe his work. Whether considering the big themes of life, death and all the cruelties and disappointment inbetween or cataloguing the shimmering surfaces and minutiae of modernity his writing is so full of life that it lives on way beyond the past tense. Transcends it, in fact.

Even when digging deep into the darkest recesses of the human psyche - as he did in his 1984 portrait of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, which reached beyond the tabloid perceptions of evil to offer a poignant, studied and - yes - forensic portrait - or in Happy Like Murderers, the diabolical account of Fred and Rose West, two of life’s losers who made the leap from abused to abuser, Burn found life. His posthumously published collection of writing on modern art’s finest – Gilbert and George and Damien and Tracey - Sex & Violence, Death & Silence is the work of a man in love with life; in love with art’s ability to go beyond words.

Burn’s particular fascination with the alienating tendencies of celebrity and, perhaps more intriguingly, what comes after celebrity, was ahead of its time and his ability to transpose real people into imagined settings an influence on a new generation of writers, most notably David Peace who recently described Burn’s work as an on-going “argument between reality and imagination”. Certainly reading Burn’s debut novel Alma Cogan gave me the courage to write my first novel Richard, a novelisation of the disappearance of musician Richey Edwards.

As a shortlisted author for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, which recognises fiction or non-fiction which “most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods ... literature which challenges perceived notions of genre”, I recently spent time in Burn’s remote holiday home in the Scottish borders completing a novel of my own - a book set in the rural north, about murder, vice and corruption.

Six miles from the nearest shop with the River Dye running by the window and the nearby dark woods oscillating with the cooing of thousands of wood pigeons, it was an inspiring but also daunting experience. The remoteness was not a problem (I live in the windswept Pennines and generally feel like Crocodile Dundee in cities) but there was no getting around the fact: occupying the space left behind by a towering figure whose work casts a long shadow across your own is both strangely exhilarating and intimidating.

Here I was surrounded by the personal effects of a man whose work inspired me to write in the first place: the notes in the margins of other books (“Ray’s memory?” penned on a page in JB Priestley’s An English Journey, was clearly the club singer Ray Cruddas from 2003 novel The North of England Home Service taking shape before my very eyes); scribbles in his own books explaining to future readers his intentions; his DVDs of kitchen sink realist films; original art by the likes of Peter Blake and Michael Landy, and his collection of Jade Goody biographies.

How not to feel overawed – but inspired too? Where Burn’s writing so often zooms in on the fine detail – the possessions, trinkets, and totems that comprise the ephemera of all our lives - in time I found myself cataloguing those possessions which fed into his work. And when that was done and the dog was walked there was nothing else to do but write. Write, write, write. Day and night.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do know that spaces can hold memories and I know that as creatures with finely tuned senses we react to our surroundings. Observing the life of Gordon Burn through his work and his home without ever having met him felt like rare privilege – a glimpse into the world of a true talent whose literary influence, one suspects, is only going to grow over the coming years.

Gordon Burn presented a "haunted" vision of Britain. Photograph: Sarah Lee.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times